I’m not sure that I love every character I’ve ever written, actually, back in the day of trying my hand at crime fiction, there were a few that I distinctly did not like at all. Funnily enough, you’d expect that the people you really wouldn’t like would be the murderers, the abductors, the serial liars – not always so.
It was those characters, that I wrote, whom in the first flourish of the pen, appeared to be so together, so contained, so wonderfully able to work within the constraints of the genre. It turned out that most of these were either extremely formulaic or flat as a pancake. The worst, were those written as a sort of personal therapy. Oh yes, I too have written a boss I didn’t like as a Chief Superintendent with a cocaine habit and a body odour problem that made me giggle at first and wince by the third draft! She may even have been just a little bit bald!
It’s funny now, but looking back, all of that – all of the drafts and the re-drafts, they were the school of writing which any writer worth his or her salt has to (endure) attend in order to someday find their place in the world.
The truth is that just as there are many different writers and countless diverse types of fiction, so too there are numerous ways to create a character you will love. You need to like the people in your books; you need to find some spot of humanity in them because you’re going to be stuck with them for several months, and then some if you manage to land a publishing deal. Similar to your children, if you don’t like them very much, you really can’t send them out into the world and expect other people to like them and you need them to be liked, on some level at least. No reader is going to stick with a book, no matter how nicely covered, marketed or reviewed if they don’t enjoy the characters. After all, these are the people most of us bring to bed with us each night – think about that when you’re creating a serial killer!
Some characters are born from necessity. The plot has arrived thick and fast and it needs to rent a crowd to drive it from beginning to end. You can spot these characters, though you won’t necessarily hang out with them for very long. Many secondary and supporting characters are like this. These are necessary in any story; they populate and allow the stars to shine brightly.
It’s an important point to remember, every book needs a leading character and it’s probably best if one of those characters is female. Oh, yes? Well, yes, because the larger numbers of readers are female and not just in the traditional genre of women’s fiction. We are devouring crime and literary fiction in huge numbers also far outweighing the reading power of men. My agent told me once that you have to think of a movie. It’s rare to see a half dozen big name actresses all in starring roles in a movie. So too, books require that there is leading lady and although you can have other great roles, like the wicked stepmother or the delinquent daughter there is only one star. If you are fortunate to find your manuscript populated with any number of characters who have the potential to carry a good story, don’t worry. As you re-draft, cut and paste – save them for another day. You may never use them, but keeping them in a separate document and re-visiting them again will put your mind at rest. You can take them out to play again, or you can let them gracefully retire in the hard drive.
Some writers talk about characters just arriving. Harry Potter is the most famous of these. JK Rowling said he just arrived, she had been toying with writing for some time before, but when Harry arrived, he was fully formed and with him came an avalanche of ideas for the Potter series. What a blast that must have been!
For me, it’s voice. I will hear a characters voice first. Often they will write themselves, from their hair to their eye colour. If I’m stuck at the beginning of a chapter and I make myself a cup of coffee, their words will float into my mind and then I’m off again. Where voice is difficult is when you hear an accent. So, for Kasia in ‘My Husband’s Wives,’ her accent was very strong in the first draft. She had been Polish to begin, but then as time went on, she moved to Romania, as you do! By the third draft, I had whittled it down a lot. My fear was that my agent would think I’d forgotten how to spell or that I’d started diluting the coffee with something a lot stronger! I know, that in the past, I’ve read great books, but if there’s a heavy accent then it slows up the reading and for me it’s a balance between allowing the character to speak freely or the reader to read easily. Kasia really didn’t mind.
The trick, I think is, that regardless of where your inspiration comes from, it is knowing your characters well that pays off the most. I know a friend of mine who sits down and fills in a curriculum vitae for every character in her book. She begins with the year of birth and records every minute detail she can think of. Sometimes, if she’s a little creatively stuck she will take random attributes and hang them on her blank mannequin until eventually, like a sculptor taking from the stone, she has a shape, with more graft she manages to draw out depth. She would say, that she finds characters hard, which is unusual, but then each of us has our bugbear.
The best characters are undoubtedly the one’s you don’t want to stop writing. They are the ones that if you had time would bring you to eight thousand words in a sitting. Those days are magic, but the problem is, at some point you have to say goodbye. Although they inhabit your thoughts for months on end, and lovely and all as they are, they’re not going to pick up the kids from camp or put on the electric blanket on a cold night for you.
So the trick is, dig deep, remember to keep it real, but remember too that we’re all making it up as we go along! There is no right or wrong way to develop a character, and unlike people in life, if they really get on your nerves, you can always give them a stinking body pong and then pop them in the trash can!
(c) Faith Hogan
About My Husband’s Wives
Better to have loved and lost, than never loved.
Paul Starr, Irelands leading cardiologist dies in a car crash with a pregnant young women by his side.
United in their grief and the love of one man, four women are thrown together in an attempt to come to terms with life after Paul. They soon realise they never really knew him at all.
The love they shared for Paul in his life and which incensed a feeling of mistrust and dislike for each other, in his death turns into the very thing that bonds them and their children to each other forever.
As they begin to form unlikely friendships, Paul’s deaths proves to be the catalyst that enables them to become the people they always wanted to be.